The End of Something – Intermediate Level
In the old days Hortons Bay was a lumber town. No one who lived in it was out of sound of the big saws in the mill by the lake. Then one year there were no more logs to make lumber. The lumber boats came into the bay and were loaded with the remaining cut of the mill that stood piled neatly outside. All the machinery that was removable was taken out the mill building and lifted into one of the boats by the men who had worked in the mill. The boat moved out of the bay toward the open lake. Inside were the two great circular saws, the travelling machine that pushed the logs against the saws and all the rollers, wheels, belts and iron piled on a load of lumber. Its open hold was covered with sail cloth and tied down tight. As the boat moved out into the open lake, it carried with it everything that had made the mill a mill and Hortons Bay a town.
The buildings where the workers slept and ate, the company store, the mill offices, and the big mill building itself stood deserted in the large field of sawdust that covered the wet ground by the shore of the bay.
Ten years later there was nothing of the mill left except the broken white foundations showing through the thin second growth as Nick and Marjorie rowed along the shore. They were a little out from the shore where the shallow, sandy waters around the edge of the bay drop off suddenly into the deeper, dark water. They were on their way to set night lines for trout, and as they went they were pulling a baited fishing line behind them.
“There’s our old ruin, Nick,” Marjorie said.
Nick, rowing, looked at the white stone in the green trees.
“There it is,” he said.
“Can you remember when it was a mill?” Marjorie asked.
“I can just remember,” Nick said.
“It seems more like a castle,” Marjorie said.
Nick said nothing. They rowed on out of sight of the mill, following the shore. Then Nick cut across the bay.
“They aren’t biting,” he said.
“No,” Marjorie said. She was paying close attention to her fishing rod as Nick rowed, even when she talked. She loved to fish. She loved to fish with Nick.
Close beside the boat a big trout broke the surface of the water. Nick pulled hard on one oar so the boat would turn and the bait, following far behind, would pass where the trout was feeding. As the trout’s back came up out of the water the small fish it was chasing jumped wildly. They broke the surface like a handful of small stones thrown into the water. Another trout broke the surface, feeding on the other side of the boat.
“They’re feeding,” Marjorie said.
“But they won’t take the bait,” Nick said.
He rowed the boat around to go past the two feeding fish again, then headed it for the point. Marjorie did not reel in the line until the boat touched the shore.
They pulled the boat up the beach and Nick lifted out a bucket of live bait fish. The fish swam in the bucket. Nick quickly caught three of them with his hands. He then cut their heads off and skinned them while Marjorie chased with her hands in the bucket, finally caught one, cut its head off and skinned it. Nick looked at her fish.
“You don’t want to take the bottom fin out,” he said. “It’ll be all right for bait but it’s better with the bottom fin in.”
He hooked each of the skinned fish through the tail. There were two hooks attached to the end of the line on each rod. Marjorie rowed the boat out over to where the deep water began. She held the line from one of the rods in her teeth, looking toward Nick who stood on the shore holding the rod and letting the line run out as she rowed.
“That’s about right,” he called.
“Should I let it drop?” Marjorie called back, holding the line in her hand.
“Sure. Let it go.” Marjorie dropped the line over the side and watched the baits go down through the water.
She came in with the boat and ran the second line out the same way. Nick collected some pieces of wood from along the shore. He put a heavy piece across the bottom of each rod to hold it in place, and used a smaller piece to hold the other end up at an angle. He reeled in the loose line until it ran straight out to where the bait rested on the sandy floor of the lake. Then he set the reel so that it would make a noise when a trout, feeding on the bottom, took the bait and swam away with it in a great rush.
Marjorie rowed up the point a little so that it was well away the lines. She pulled hard on the oars and the boat went up the beach. Little waves came in with it. Marjorie stepped out of the boat and Nick pulled the boat high up the beach.
“What’s the matter, Nick?” Marjorie asked.
“I don’t know,” Nick said, collecting more pieces of wood for a fire.
They made the fire and Marjorie went to the boat and brought a blanket. The evening wind blew the smoke toward the point, so Marjorie spread the blanket out between the fire and the lake.
Marjorie sat on the blanket with her back to the fire and waited for Nick. He came over and sat down beside her on the blanket. In back of them was the close second growth forest of the point and in front was the bay with the mouth of Hortons Creek. It was not quite dark. The fire-light went as far as the water. They could both see the two steel rods at an angle over the dark water. The light from the fire shone on the reels.
Marjorie unpacked the basket of food.
“I don’t feel like eating,” said Nick.
“Come on and eat, Nick.”
They ate without talking, and watched the two rods and the fire-light in the water.
“There’s going to be a moon tonight,” said Nick. He looked across the bay to the hills that were beginning to show up against the sky. He could see that the moon was coming up on the other side of the hills.
“I know it,” Marjorie said happily.
“You know everything,” Nick said.
“Oh, Nick, please stop! Please, please don’t be that way!”
“I can’t help it,” Nick said. “You do. You know everything. That’s the trouble. You know you do.”
Marjorie did not say anything.
“I’ve taught you everything. You know you do. What don’t you know, anyway?”
“Oh, shut up,” Marjorie said. “There comes the moon.”
They sat on the blanket without touching each other and watched the moon rise.
“You don’t have to talk silly,” Marjorie said. “What’s really the matter?”
“I don’t know.”
“Of course you know.”
“No I don’t.”
“Go on and say it.”
Nick looked on at the moon, coming up over the hills.
“It isn’t fun any more.”
He was afraid to look at Marjorie. Then he looked at her. She sat there with her back toward him. He looked at her back. “It isn’t fun any more. Not any of it.”
She didn’t say anything. He went on. “I feel as though everything was gone to hell inside of me. I don’t know, Marge. I don’t know what to say.”
He looked on at her back.
“Isn’t love any fun?” Marjorie said.
“No,” Nick said. Marjorie stood up. Nick sat there, his head in his hands.
“I’m going to take the boat,” Marjorie called to him. “You can walk back around the point.”
“All right,” Nick said. “I’ll push the boat off for you.”
“You don’t need to,” she said. She was soon in the boat on the water with the moonlight on it. Nick went back and lay down with his face in the blanket by the fire. He could hear Marjorie rowing on the water.
He lay there for a long time. He lay there while he heard Bill come into the clearing walking around through the woods. He felt Bill coming up to the fire. Bill didn’t touch him, either.
“Did she go all right?” Bill said.
“Yes,” Nick said, lying, his face on the blanket.
“Have a scene?”
“No, there wasn’t any scene.”
“How do you feel?”
“Oh, go away, Bill! Go away for a while.”
Bill selected a sandwich from the lunch basket and walked over to have a look at the rods.
From the Hemingway story “The Three-Day Blow”
They drank. Bill filled up the glasses. They sat down in the big chairs in front of the fire.
“You were very wise,” Bill said.
“What do you mean?” asked Nick.
“To break off that Marge business,” Bill said.
“I guess so,” said Nick.
“It was the only thing to do. If you hadn’t, by now you’d be back home working trying to get enough money to get married.”
Nick said nothing.
“Once a man’s married he’s no longer a man,” Bill went on. “He hasn’t got anything more. Nothing. Not a damn thing. He’s done for. You’ve seen the guys that get married.”
Nick said nothing.
“You can tell them,” Bill said. “They get this sort of fat married look. They’re done for.”
“Sure,” said Nick.
“It was probably bad breaking it off,” Bill said. “But you always fall for somebody else and then it’s all right. Fall for them but don’t let them ruin you.”
“Yes,” said Nick.
“If you’d have married her you would have had to marry the whole family. Remember her mother and that guy she married.”
“Imagine having them around the house all the time and going to Sunday dinners at their house, and having them over to dinner and her telling Marge all the time what to do and how to act.”
Nick sat quiet.
“You came out of it damned well,” Bill said. “Now she can marry somebody of her own sort and settle down and be happy. You can’t mix oil and water and you can’t mix that sort of thing any more than if I’d marry Ida that works for Strattons. She’d probably like it, too.”
Nick said nothing. The whiskey had all died out of him and left him alone. Bill wasn’t there. He wasn’t sitting in front of the fire or going fishing tomorrow with Bill and his dad or anything. He wasn’t drunk. It was all gone. All he knew was that he had once had Marjorie and that he had lost her. She was gone and he had sent her away. That was all that mattered. He might never see her again. Probably he never would. It was all gone, finished.
“Let’s have another drink,” Nick said.
Bill poured it out. Nick added a little water.
“If you’d gone on that way we wouldn’t be here now,” Bill said.
That was true. His original plan had been to go down home and get a job. Then he had planned to stay in Charlevoix all winter so he could be near Marge. Now he did not know what he was going to do.
“Probably we wouldn’t even be going fishing tomorrow,” Bill said. “You had the right idea, all right.”
“I couldn’t help it,” Nick said.
“I know. That’s the way it works out,” Bill said.
“All of a sudden everything was over,” Nick said. “I don’t know why it was. I couldn’t help it. Just like when the three-day blows come now and tear all the leaves off the trees.”
“Well, it’s over. That’s the point,” Bill said.
“It was my fault,” Nick said.
“It doesn’t make any difference whose fault it was,” Bill said.
“No, I suppose not,” Nick said.
The big thing was that Marjorie was gone and that probably he would never see her again. He had talked to her about how they would go to Italy together and the fun they would have. Places they would be together. It was all gone now.
“So long as it’s over that’s all that matters,” Bill said. “I tell you, I was worried while it was going on. You played it right. I understand her mother is sore as hell. She told a lot of people you were engaged.”
“We weren’t engaged,” Nick said.
“It was all around that you were.”
“I can’t help it,” Nick said. “We weren’t.”
“Weren’t you going to get married?” Bill asked.
“Yes. But we weren’t engaged,” Nick said.
“What’s the difference?” Bill asked.
“I don’t know. There’s a difference.”
“I don’t see it,” said Bill.
“All right,” said Nick. “Let’s get drunk.”
“All right,” Bill said. “Let’s get really drunk.”
“Let’s get drunk and then go swimming,” Nick said.
He drank off his glass.
“I’m sorry as hell about her but what could I do?” he said. “You know what her mother was like!”
“She was terrible,” Bill said.
“All of a sudden it was over,” Nick said. “I oughtn’t to talk about it.”
“You aren’t,” Bill said. “I talked about it and now I’m through. We won’t ever speak about it again. You don’t want to think about it. You might get back into it again.”
Nick had not thought about that. It had seemed so absolute. That was a thought. That made him feel better.
“Sure,” he said. “There’s always that danger.”
He felt happy now. There was nothing that could not be changed. He might go into town Saturday night. Today was Thursday.
“There’s always a chance,” he said.
“You’ll have to watch yourself,” Bill said.
“I’ll watch myself,” he said.
He felt happy. Nothing was finished. Nothing was ever lost. He would go into town on Saturday. He felt lighter, as he had felt before Bill started to talk about it. There was always a way out.